hiking trail etiquette The longest I've hiked without meeting up with someone not in my party was four days while backpacking in the Rocky Mountains. But, on most day hikes, you will probably encounter other hikers and maybe some bikers or horse riders. Being prepared for these meetings before they happen is a good thing.

Share the Trail


There's a saying: You'll never win a fight with an automobile. The same general rule applies to any situation in which you find yourself - the bigger object wins. On trails, a hiker is about the smallest, slowest object so it is in your best interest to yield to any other mode of transportation you encounter.

hiking trail A commonly used trail sharing sign is shown here.
The rules are:

  • Bikers yield to hikers and horses
  • Hikers yield to Horses
The concept is that bikers are fast and can stop and go easily so they let everything else have the right of way. Horses are big and unpredictable so they get the right of way.

As a slow, unprotected hiker, I'm not about to argue the right of way with a horse or biker or ATV or anything else I might meet. I will always politely yield the trail and use the time to take a deep breath and say 'Howdy'.

Here are a bunch of tips to make it easier to share the trail with others. Please remember these and try to follow them and pass them on to new hikers:

  • Stay on the trail. Do not cut switchbacks or take shortcuts.
  • Stay to the right on wider paths.
  • Pass on the left.
  • When overtaking someone, let them know you are approaching and will be passing on their left. You may hear a biker call out, "On your Left!" as he comes up from behind. That means you should stay to your right.
  • Whenever you stop for a view, a rest, or to yield, move off the trail so it is free for others. If you are selecting the spot for a rest, get off on a used area or a durable surface such as a rock, dirt, or snow. Don't just trample off the trail into a nice soft field of grass and flowers.
  • Hikers going uphill are working hard and should be given the right of way over hikers coming downhill. Sometimes uphill hikers will prefer to stop and let you pass coming down so they can get a short break. The uphill hiker should get to make the call.
  • Greet people you meet. This makes sure they know you are there and is polite. A simple "Howdy" or "Nice Day" is fine.
  • When hiking in a group, yield to single or pair hikers. It's harder for a group to get off the trail so often times singles will stop and let you all pass, but its their call.
  • When hiking in a group, hike single file or take no more than half of a wide trail. Make sure everyone in your group understands what actions to take when encountering hikers, bikers, and horses.

  • horse hiking trail

    When meeting a horse:
    • Get off the trail on the downhill side. Horses will tend to bolt uphill when spooked. Also, you waiting on the uphill side looks more like a predator waiting to pounce.
    • Quietly greet the rider and ask if you are ok where you are.
    • Stand quietly while the horses pass.
  • Hike Quietly. Echos are fun, but keep conversations quiet and enjoy the lack of horns, engines, and city noises. There is such a thing as noise pollution. And, in my view, cellphones are the worst form of this pollution.
  • Don't leave any markers when hiking off-trail. Cairns, ducks, or little piles of rocks are not needed. If people are hiking cross-country, their compass and map are all they need. Markers tend to concentrate traffic which creates more unmanaged trail scars. Or, markers pop up all over and serve no navigational purpose.
  • Read trailhead guidelines. There may be specific rules for the trail you are on.
  • Pack It In - Pack It Out. I am always amazed to find litter. It just does not make sense that someone spending time to get out into nature would purposely destroy it. I just don't get it.
  • Take a Picture. A pretty rock or a bunch of flowers deserve to remain where they are. We have a need for mementos of our adventures, but picture in your mind what the place would look like if the group before you had taken what you are about to put in your pocket.
  • Report vandalism. If there is contact information at the trailhead, tell the managing agency of any destruction or management needs you notice.

On the Soapbox


You will run into some people that feel they have a right to do whatever they want outdoors. You'll see areas where horses were tied to trees, ruining the bark and killing the trees. You'll see wide, braided trails around muddy spots with footprints, hoofprints, and tiretracks all adding to the damage. You'll see washed out gullies created by mountain bikers having fun tearing down the mountain. You'll have a biker fly past you with no warning.
 
These are the people that make an impression. Keep your eyes open for them for your own safety, but also recognize the many others that are courteous and polite. And, make sure people put you into the courteous and polite category after they've met you on the trail.

Hike On: Hiking Gear


Comments:
 Feb 16, 2012 - Frank Will - a.k.a "Trail Dog"
Thank you for the wonderful trail info. It would also be nice to include the proper use of whistles.
Mar 06, 2012 - Wandrin Lloyd
Not sure where it ever became etiquette to yield to uphill hikers. Hiking solo today and gasping for breath on the uphill climb, I met six people who wanted to yield the trail. Give me a break. Please! I wanted to stop and catch my breath. I stepped off the trail to catch my breath. I commented to them that I never did understand the logic for the yielding to uphill traffic. Turns out these hikers also agreed that it was a poor rule as they saw me gasping for air.

However, it is a good rule for vehicles. Vehicles going uphill should have the right of way on those narrow roads. Stopping, they may never get started again going up hill.

Like your caveat noted, it is up to the hikers who decide who will yield.
Mar 07, 2012 - Hiking Dude
Lloyd - Someone going downhill has a much farther view ahead than someone going up.  He is not working as hard and often has more time to find a good pull-out spot.
Someone going uphill is often concentrating on moving forward and may mostly be only seeing the trail a few feet ahead.

If you're gasping for air, I'd say it might be a good idea to slow down a bit - but that's just me.
May 17, 2012 - Equusrider
Thanks for the info on horses. As a  horse back rider, Im often frustrated with the lack of education about or concern for equestrians. Often we get off the trail anyway because it is not worth my life hoping that the bikers, dirt bikers and hikers are educated about yielding to horses. Most hikers and bikers I come across are very courteous, but it is the ones who aren't that can get me killed. Can I have some suggestions. Cyclist, Please as you approach from behind, give a yell that you are there and coming up behind. Hikers please, when get off the trail don't hide behind bushes. Stay visible and speak up; say "HI". Horses are prey animals and it is the mountain lions who stay silent and hidden. Horses, don't always recognize you and your backpack as a human. Speaking out will tell the horse, you are not a predator and you are not going to eat them.
May 17, 2012 - Hiking Dude
Equusrider - on my AZ Trail hike, I carried a silver sun umbrella many days.  The first horse I encountered stopped dead in its tracks about a quarter mile away and I was a bit confused.  Aha! I collapsed my umbrella and kept walking and the horse was fine.  I guess I looked like a very strange Something out there.
After that, I would collapse my umbrella as soon as I saw a horse.
Jun 28, 2012 - Jeanine Perez
I want to thank you so much about the downhill uphill rule.  Because I love to hike uphill and take a no prisoners style of hiking approach.  On the way down I enjoy the scenery and sometime jog but feel no pressure and enjoy being sociable.  Also I sometime hike with groups and didn't know that singles and couples had the right of way thanks for the great info.
Jul 27, 2012 - Neet
I always yield to horses, but it seems to me that horse people approaching hikers should communicate and take responsibility for not running people over, just as cars are not allowed to run people over in the street. I can't possibly hurt a horse if I run into it, but the horse can hurt or kill me. And horse can move infinitely faster than I can, especially if I have an overnight pack on.

Again, I personally always yield thoughtfully and politely, but it seems as though theoretically the horseback rider should take responsibility for not hurting hikers first. Then, if the hiker is nice, s/he can choose to yield to the horse since it's easier as a person  to get off the trail than it is for a horse. But if for some reason the hiker doesn't choose to yield, the horseback rider should at least hold the horse still until the hiker can get by. Does this logic seem reasonable to anyone else?
Aug 02, 2012 - katrina
Another trail etiquette rule not mentioned: stay in communication with your own hiking party. If you and your buddies stop for a quick rest at a beautiful view or shady creek, make sure your group knows if you're hiking on before they're ready to go. Likewise, know where partner(s) are before you hike on. I was one of a group of three that stopped at a creek last weekend -- on a quiet, unpopulated trail --and the other two left the creekside while I was digging in my pack for my camera. I didn't hear them go and was lucky to spot them way up the trail when I noticed they were gone. Either they didn't care or didn't notice...either way, it is bad form and potentially very dangerous.
Aug 03, 2012 - Hiking Dude
Neet - sure, it makes sense.  But, a 150pound person can't force a 1,200pound horse to stay still or not be frightened.  And a frightened animal can't be controlled.
The point you made is a key reason for humans to give way to horses - we make much less impact.  200pounds distributed on 2 footprints is a lot less disruptive than 1500pounds on 4 hooves that are stomping around instead of standing quietly.

Using your analogy, a hiker that refuses to give way to a horse is about as bright as a pedestrian that refuses to give way to a car.
-----------------
katrina - keeping a group together is more of a safety note than etiquette, but it is important.  Communicating in your group and watching out for each other should be a set expectation before you ever set foot on the trail.
Aug 11, 2012 - Russ
I'll add a few observations.  Re horses:  they often come in groups, and seem to include very inexperienced riders.  Applying the rules of the road seem unwise.  After all, vehicles presumably all stop or slow as expected when brakes applied.  Why assume so with a large, burdened animal.  Out of their way and not spooking them in any way is very sound.  Re bikes:  I have rarely encountered a bike that yielded or slowed at all around hikers.  They also often approach from behind with little warning and can startle.  Those simple thumb bells we had on our bikes when we were 10 would help, but they are so "unhip".  I have little suggestion for the hikers though.
Oct 04, 2012 - Blackat
Being a horse rider I can only say that horses are "unpredictable". The yielding to horses rule really is for the safety of the hiker...

Even a very experienced rider on a very good trail horse will run into hairy situations. If there is a poor person on the way it cannot end well.

I've been stepped on more than once by great horses that got spooked by the most banal such as a strange looking log (really!) - It could break your foot or a toe very easily.
Oct 29, 2012 - frustrated
I hope some of your readers can help us.  We own a piece of undeveloped property which for years people have crossed to reach a hiking/biking trail.  We don't mind.  We want to keep it open for those who enjoy the sport. Our problem--One couple who walk before daylight have been using the bushes for toilet purposes, leaving their business uncovered and paper to blow across the hillside.  We have posted it \"PRIVATE PROPERTY, Please stay on trail\".  They continue to do their business AND have even knocked the sign down a couple of times.  We know who they are and have even turned the security cameras so we can see them going into the bush.  We had trouble with these same people a few years ago tearing down a short fence that diverted hikers/bikers around an unsafe area. They don't walk every day, so it is hard to catch them at it.  I have sat at my window at 5am watching for them. How would your readers handle this situation?  Thanks.
Oct 31, 2012 - Hiking Dude
frustrated - Too weird.  Doesn't make sense to me to leave my warm house and walk to a neighbor's property to use it as a bathroom in the cold morning.
If you know who it is, and it is your property, can't you just tell them they are not welcome on your property?  If you have video of them leaving the trail and going into the bush, tell them that and then provide it to the police if you need their assistance.
Nov 25, 2012 - John Lipscomb
What is the accepted method concerning walking trails with dogs on a leash. Certainly, the leash should be as short as possible and trained dogs walk on the left of the human. That places the dog close to passing traffic (other walkers, bikes, etc). I ask because even dogs who behavior well may cause concern to passing traffic (or meeting traffic) as some may not see the dog until passing.
Dec 01, 2012 - Hiking Dude
John - On a shared use trail, everyone is responsible to be in control of themselves and their pets.  That means having a short leash (not a 6 or 8 foot leash) so your dog can not attack another pet or trail user.  If your dog tends to be aggressive, a dog muzzle would be good, or walking it where there are no other people around.  If that's not the case, then it's just a matter of preventing collisions.
The other trail users have the responsibility to be in control of their bicycle or their feet.  They should be able to stop quickly when passing you since your dog may take a step into their path.  As you probably have experienced, this often is not the case but it is the goal.

So, dog on short leash on your left is just fine.  If you see someone coming towards you, you can certainly guide your dog to your right side of the trail until the person is passed.  I expect he'll enjoy exploring whatever he finds off the trail, too.
Jan 06, 2013 - Elizabeth
Thank you for these great tips on trail etiquette. I have shared with my walking/hiking group in the Bay Area, pointing them to this web site as well.
Jan 21, 2013 - Tamara Klein
Good info on trail etiquette. My concern is the amount of dogs off lead. I like dogs, but I don't enjoy a dog running full speed up to me and the whole "it's ok, he's friendly", mentality. This is some good info to share.


Jan 22, 2013 - Hiking Dude
Tamara - Yes, that "it's ok, he's friendly" is an all-too-common phrase heard on the trail.  Especially when it is peeing on the sign that clearly states "keep dogs on leash". :-)
Mar 10, 2013 - Hillbilly
Thanks for putting this together. On hike we routinely review these tips before hitting the trail in the hope newbies will pass these concepts on to their friends.
Of all the transgressions I encounter along the trail the two most irksome; The unleashed un-nerving and un-welcome "s/he's friendly Dog visits" and the all too audible unyeilding conversation which can be heard from at least 1/2 mi before arriving and continues for the 1/2 mile beyond. I useually stop to allow the nusciance to pass on returning nature to it's own. I remain on stand by all the while for medical emergency, concerned that the offender has not stopped speaking to breath for such a long period they may fail and falter for lack of oxygen! (if only)  
Apr 19, 2013 - Martis
From a deaf hiker. Please bikers if you call out "on your left" and the hiker do not move, do not carry on at full speed, give the hiker space. I have been hit by a bicycle more than once. I always hike with hearing people but they not always have time to let me know.
People usually give space to special need hikers, but hearing impaired hikers are not that easy to spot by eye.
May 05, 2013 - Karthik
Great info! I recently hiked in Grand Canyon and wanted to get my body warmed up during the start of the hike downhill as it was a cold morning, too. There were a LOT of people going downhill and in my excitement to jog, I put on my earphones and started to sprint heartily downhill. Almost everybody I passed were courteous and even exchanged a smile, but, I believe a few weren't too happy about me passing like that. Would you say I was being rude to my fellow hikers? By the way, just like me, few more people were jogging/sprinting/running along as well. Also, I'd like to know your comments on listening to music during hikes.
May 06, 2013 - C0BALT
Listening to headphones to me is like going to a free concert, and then putting on headphones and listening to different music than what is playing at the concert. Running on trails that are used by walkers and long distance hikers is also like bringing your city apartment sidewalk out to the wilderness. Most people do tolerate trail runners. Trail runners are also very unaware audibly or visually of anything going on around them, other than the 2 metres in front of them. They are the ones that aren't prepared (with any gear) for anything when something bad happens. Trail runners also tend to be a distraction on the trail from the wilderness around. So yes, wearing headphones, listening to music and trail running... why not just stay at home and run on a treadmill and look at a 3d bluray of the Canyon?
Most hikers do go into the wilderness to experience it at a slow walking speed and to have all their senses stimulated by the nature around them, including the natural sounds.
May 06, 2013 - Hiking Dude
Karthik - I like cobalt's analogy, but don't feel so strongly his generalization of trail runners.
Wilderness races are popular and I have no problem with people running on trails.  But, they have a responsibility to stay in control, be safe, and not impact other users.
It would make sense to slow down and announce your presence when overtaking someone - something like "passing on your left, please".
As far as listening to music - I think it's unsafe, distracting, and silly.  It tunes out the world around you and you may not hear important sounds, such as snakes, animals in the brush, yells for help, or runners overtaking you saying "on your left".  
May 28, 2013 - larry
I disagree with your rule concerning uphill/downhill right of way. I don't know where that rule came from, but it creates danger for the person going downhill in exchange for convenience of the person going uphill.True that hikers going uphill are working hard, however it is very easy for them to stop and actually when the incline is very steep they are stopping with every step anyway. Going downhill, gravity is pulling us and makes stopping more difficult. Downhill stopping often can be dangerous especially when the trail is sand, gravel, loose dirt, etc. when putting on the brakes can cause our feet to go out from under us. Often the situation calls for running down a short ways. Also, I would like to argue that going downhill a hiker does NOT have a much farther view ahead than someone going up. I look at every step I put my foot down. The hiker that looks around not paying attention to every single step will eventually hurt themselves, especially going downhill at a faster pace.
Jun 07, 2013 - Hiking Dude
@larry - The general guideline is to be in control and be courteous.  If it would be dangerous for a hiker to stop his steps, then that hiker is not in control and needs to slow down more.  Stopping should never be a difficult thing - if it is, then the hiker is not in control.
Your point of view that a hiker going downhill does not have a farther view is incorrect.  It has nothing to do with 'looking around and not paying attention'.  It has to do with the ground angle ahead of you and your eyes tending to watch the trail before you.
Jun 24, 2013 - Adam
Hiking Dude and Neet - I grew up on a horse farm and trail riding was a way of life.  Hikers forget how the gentlest of horses can be spooked.  They are all instinct and no brains.  A glint in the stream caused a horse to rear up, slip, and pin the rider.  A pop of a soda can made a mount buck the rider into a power pole, breaking his neck.  The pain of a horse-fly bite made a horse "cow kick" breaking a leg.  My point is you just never know.  Be aware of their blind spots, be aware of your own actions,  don't separate a horse from the its herd, ask to approach, introduce yourself to a horse the way you might greet a strange dog, never approach from behind, and if you must walk around a horse, keep a hand in contact as if you were grooming the horse.  

As for right of way, even in situations where you think you are in the right, don't push your luck.  Pedistrians are in their right to cross a road with a white walk sign, but you still look for cars that don't stop.  
Jul 05, 2013 - Lee
My two cents on right of way:

Resource impacts should be considered. A group of 2 should stepping off the trail impacts the trail edge twice as much as a single hiker. The impact scales up nicely with larger and larger groups. Also, this fits nicely with horses, since sending a horse off trail would be a huge impact.

Also, coordinating a smaller group or individual's off trail maneuver is also easier and quicker than coordinating a larger group.

Finally, I just don't feel that momentum for the uphill hiker is that strong of an argument and it is difficult to predict what the person traveling in the opposite direction will want to do. I feel like the rules for hiking were transferred from wheeled activities and hooved transportation for nothing more than the convenience of not having another set of rules and don't really take into account new concerns like "Leave No Trace" etiquette.
Jul 05, 2013 - Hiking Dude
Both AmericanHiking.org and BackPacker.com (as well as many other hiking organizations) agree with the uphill vs. downhill hikers as described on this page - downhill yields to uphill.

Sep 22, 2013 - Blue Sky Billy
Nice website. I have to agree with the established cardinal rule; downhill yield to uphill. Have been hiking many mountains and trails for over 50 years. Downhill hikers have an advantage. So please, respect the direction and strength of the uphill hiker.
Sep 23, 2013 - Melissa
Handy tips! Although make sure you swap left and right when you're in Australia, NZ, etc. (where the foot traffic tends to follow that of cars; keep left and pass on the right). It can be frustrating to be hiking only to have well-meaning people on holiday move to block the way.
Feb 03, 2014 - jasno
I have to go with the dissenters and say that uphill should yield to downhill.  Downhill has the momentum.  Uphill can stop anytime.  Unless you're on wheels, the idea that you have uphill momentum is silly.  You have to push up at every step.  If you stop pushing, you stop.  It's really that easy.  As others have said, if we were talking about cars that would be another story.  I've never been in a situation where I was unable to continue going uphill because I let a downhill hiker pass by.  The view argument is also silly for reasons already pointed out.  You better watch every step, either up or down.  The 'false summit' illusion applies to uphill as well as downhill.  Neither one has better visibility, unless you mean visibility of the trail in the far distance which doesn't apply here.
Feb 12, 2014 - Llama Lady
I greatly appreciate your inclusion of trail etiquette. Also, the comments on impact. It takes less energy and creates less impact for a smaller group to yield than a larger. I hike with llamas, usually multiple animals (who, as a bit of trivia have less trail impact that a white tail deer. Cool huh?)I ALWAYS yield to horses, allowing as wide of berth as I can and calmly speak to the riders with the animals behind me - this seems to work best.
Llamas spook as well. It is an act of congress to move a large group of animals to the side of the trail simply because a hiker or biker refuses to yield. I understand that it can kill the momentum of the biker to have yield consideration, but there is a certain amount of personal responsibility sharing a pubic trail for the sake of safety issues and FUN.
Frustratingly enough, many times I am forced to yield and will continue to do so for the safety of my animals from well meaning folks that never considered space to be an issue.
Apr 05, 2014 - melissa
I've recently started hiking and now I think I know what letf means! But while hiking I hear a lot of bikers yell "walker!" What does that mean and when there are bikers behind you what are thw things you should do. I'd like a little more info on biker and hikers please. I want to be curteous and share the beauty respectfully with everyone else as well.
Apr 06, 2014 - Hiking Dude
@Melissa - On a wide trail, with room to pass, a biker yelling "On your left!" means the hiker should move as far to their right side as possible because the bike wants to pass on the left.
A biker just yelling "Walker!" lets you know they are overtaking you.  I've not experienced this, but would guess it is on a narrow path and they are hoping you might step off the trail to let them pass.
However the encounter occurs, it is the biker's responsibility to keep his bike in control and give way to hikers.  If I heard someone yell at me from behind on a narrow trail, I would stop and turn around to see what was coming.  Then, I'd make a decision about what to do next, which might be a hasty step off the trail if the biker was not maintaining control.

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